No Scarlet Fever in Little House on the Prairie

In the popular American stories of the little house on the Prairie, author Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote emotionally about how scarlet fever robbed her older sister, Mary, of her sight. However...
March 25, 2013 12:00 pm

In the popular American stories of the little house on the Prairie, author Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote emotionally about how scarlet fever robbed her older sister, Mary, of her sight.

However University of Michigan researchers have found this was most likely not the case.

Senior author Beth A. Tarini, M.D., and her co-authors used evidence from newspaper reports, Laura Ingalls’ memories and school registries to conclude Mary’s blindness was probably caused by viral meningoencephalitis.

“Since I was in medical school, I had wondered about whether scarlet fever could cause blindness because I always remembered Mary’s blindness from reading the Little House stories and knew that scarlet fever was once a deadly disease,” says Tarini, an assistant professor of paediatrics in the Child Health Evaluation and Research Unit at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

I would ask other doctors, but no one could give me a definitive answer, so I started researching it…

“I would ask other doctors, but no one could give me a definitive answer, so I started researching it.”

Mary Ingalls went blind in 1879 at age 14. Ms. Tarini and her co-authors found evidence in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s memoirs and letters that described Mary’s illness as “spinal sickness” with symptoms suggestive of a stroke.

The study quotes a local newspaper item that reports that Mary Ingalls was confined to her bed and “it was feared that hemorrhage of the brain had set in (sic) one side of her face became partially paralyzed.”

“Meningoencephalitis could explain Mary’s symptoms, including the inflammation of the facial nerve that left the side of her face temporarily paralysed and it could also lead to inflammation of the optic nerve that would result in a slow and progressive loss of sight,” said Ms. Tarini.

She said it is not surprising that scarlet fever was labeled the culprit because between 1840 and 1883, it was one of the most common infectious causes of death among children in the United States.

Ms. Tarini said even today, a scarlet fever diagnosis can scare her patients.

“Familiar literary references like these are powerful – especially when there is some historical truth to them,” said Ms. Tarini. “This research reminds us that our patients may harbour misconceptions about a diagnosis and that we, as physicians, need to be aware of the power of the words we use – because in the end, illness is seen through the eyes of the patient.”

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